Meditation has been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety, but research suggests it can also change parts of one of our most important organs – the brain.
You’re at work trying to complete a task, but you’re finding it hard to focus. Your mind wanders to all the things you have to do after work: Pick up the kids, make dinner, do laundry, and somehow fit in time to exercise.
Then, when you finally focus back on the task at hand, you realize that it’s already 5 p.m.!
Now, you’re even more stressed and flustered, and you’ve missed your deadline completely.
Ruminating on all the things you need to do or should have done can hinder your performance at work, school, and at home.
Meditating for a few minutes might help rein in those wandering thoughts and help you stay focused throughout the day. But meditating can have an even bigger impact.
Some studies show that it affects the brain in various ways, from changing the brain’s volume to decreasing activity in the parts of the brain responsible for stress.
Meditation is a tradition that has been around for centuries. It’s a powerful tool designed to train your mind to focus and redirect your thoughts.
The goal of meditation is different for each person. Some meditate to reduce stress, while others use it to improve their concentration and memory.
There are different types of meditation. They include:
- mindfulness meditation
- progressive muscle relaxation
- guided visualization
- zen meditation
- focused attention meditation
- Transcendental Meditation
- mantra meditation
- loving-kindness meditation
There’s no right or wrong way to meditate. The practice is unique to you and can be tailored to meet your needs and fit your personality.
People practice meditation for a variety of reasons. It can be used to make you more aware of your surroundings and yourself or to give you that much-needed break during the middle of a hectic day.
Meditation can provide many benefits, including:
- lowering blood pressure
- reducing stress
- managing anxiety
- controlling pain
- improving attention
- strengthening memory
- improving self-image
- enhancing self-awareness
- improving sleep
The practice of meditation typically involves the following elements:
- a quiet location with few distractions
- a comfortable posture
- an open attitude, letting distractions come and go naturally
- a focus on breathing
- a focus of attention
Meditation can be done alone, in a group setting, or guided by a trainer in person or through an app or video. If you’re a beginner, start with just a few minutes – 5 to 10 minutes – then gradually increase your time as you get more comfortable.
Start by sitting quietly, taking deep breaths in through your nose, then blowing out through your mouth. Focus on your breath each time.
If you lose focus and your mind starts to wander, don’t be discouraged. This is not uncommon. Simply return your focus to your breathing.
Though meditation has been around for centuries, scientists have recently discovered its effects on the brain. Some research shows that meditation can change the brain’s structure. Others show that it can change brain functions.
Meditation has measurable effects on three areas of your brain:
- gray matter — involved in muscle control and sensory perception, including emotions, memory, speech, seeing, hearing, and decision making
- the prefrontal cortex — responsible for decision making
- amygdala — controls emotional response
- hippocampus — responsible for memory and learning.
Here are some ways that meditation changes these parts of the brain and more.
Brain structure changes
Meditation changes the way your brain responds to distractions. When you can focus entirely on the present and train yourself to do so consistently, the structure of your brain actually changes.
The study also found decreases in the volume of the amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for emotions such as stress, fear, and anxiety.
Study participants who showed brain changes reported they felt less stressed, too.
So, not only did meditation change the structures in the participants’ brains, it also changed how they felt.
When you’re stressed, you often can’t focus. You might feel more anxious and flustered.
A small study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry looked at the brain scans of 35 unemployed adults seeking work. The participants reported feeling a tremendous amount of stress.
Participants were trained in either mindfulness meditation or a relaxation training program. After 3 days of training, researchers reviewed the participants’ brain scans. They found more activity in the areas of the brain related to the resting state. After a 4-month follow-up, the same individuals showed improvement in a blood marker responsible for inflammation, which is linked to stress.
Improves focus and memory
When your mind wanders, you might have trouble focusing on a task, whether that’s a work project, a school assignment, or a series of errands to run.
A 2013 study found that a 2-week training course in mindfulness meditation improved attention and concentration and decreased mind wandering.
Mindfulness meditation helped improve participants’ scores on the reading comprehension section of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), decrease distracting thoughts during the test, and improve memory. Students reported recalling information more quickly during the exam and feeling less distracted.
Another study compared the brain scans of a group of people who meditated to those who did not. The researchers found that those who meditated showed more stability in their ventral posteromedial cortex – the region of the brain linked to spontaneous thoughts and mind wandering.
This suggests that those who meditate can rein in their wandering thoughts better than those who don’t. This same study found that the meditating group could also focus better on a task.
As you age, your brain changes. Experimental research suggests that meditation might protect your brain from these changes.
A 2015 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that meditation might preserve the brain’s gray matter, which controls how fast you process information. This would stall or even reverse the usual cognitive declines that come with aging.
In this study, researchers compared the brain scans of 50 people who meditated regularly over 20 years with the brain scans of those who didn’t. Both groups showed a loss of gray matter as they aged, but there was less of a decline for those who meditated.
Researchers say more research is needed to confirm meditation’s effects on aging of the brain.
Reduces anxiety and depression
Meditation has been shown to help improve symptoms of depression and anxiety.
A 2019 review study suggests that mindfulness-based meditation can help alleviate symptoms of depression alone or in combination with more traditional treatments such as medication and therapy. These positive effects can last 6 months or longer.
This study also suggests that meditation might help ease symptoms of anxiety, though only in combination with other treatments.
Meditation can be done by anyone and anywhere – whether at work, home, at school, or even in the car.
You don’t need any special equipment or a gym membership.
Try out different styles of meditation to find the one that works best for you and fits your lifestyle.
Our lives are often so fast-paced that it can seem impossible to find the time and space to meditate, much less to even believe that you can clear your mind completely.
But all you need is a few minutes to get started and silence, and the benefits to your brain can last a lifetime.